By Chet Yarbrough
Music as a Mirror of History
By: Robert Greenberg
Narrated by Robert Greenberg
Robert Greenberg (American composer, pianist, and musicologist.)
Robert Greenberg offers an introduction to the history of classical music and opera. Its appeal is to a wide audience of dilettantes that know a little but not a lot about anything. Greenberg argues classical music’ and opera’ composition is a creation of its time. (Undoubtedly true of all music and theatre.)
However, Greenberg supports his argument with a fascinating critique of classical composers and events of history that influence composers’ work. Greenberg argues that one can better understand classical “Music as a Mirror of History”.
In reflecting on the history of music, Greenberg offers his perception of the era in which music is composed. He makes wry comments about each era with the hindsight of an obviously well-read consumer of history. At the same time, Greenberg offers expert analysis of classical music and its composers. With snippets of each composer’s work, an Audiobook is a perfect venue for his presentation.
English religion wavered back and forth between Roman Catholicism’s control by the Pope and the Church of England’s control by the King of England. English King Henry the VIII demands control of Catholicism (particularly the church’s land assets and taxes collected on those assets).
After two failed royals (after King Henry VIII’s death), Elizabeth stabilizes England’s governance. She reigns from 1558-1603. Greenberg explains the many challenges facing Queen Elizabeth before she gains the throne.
Greenberg notes Queen Elizabeth’s reign is a perceived golden era, in spite of the squalor of 16th century London living.
Greenberg notes that Queen Elizabeth is the first English monarch, after two predecessors, to sustain Henry VIII’s Church of England. With Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the King, not the Pope, controls the role of Catholicism in England.
Greenberg begins by explaining how madrigals reflect the myths of nationalism. He defines a madrigal as a song for several voices, without instrumental accompaniment. Madrigals began in the 14th century in Italy but Greenberg introduces Thomas Morley, a composer in the 16th century.
Thomas Morley’s Piaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1557)
Morley is a 16th century composer. He composes a madrigal to Elizabeth I. As is typical of this form of music, it idealizes England’s suzerainty and Elizabeth’s reign as Queen of England.
Greenberg moves on to the 18th century. He introduces George Frideric Handel. Though Handel is German, he chooses to move to London, after successfully touring Italy. Greenberg notes Handel tells his Prussian patron (King Frederick I) that his sojourn to London is only temporary, but Handel’s intent is to stay.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1959)
King Frederick I of Prussia (1657-1713)
Handel persuades the King of Prussia to allow him to stay in England by dedicating the three suites of “The Water Music” to him.
Ironically, Handel becomes renowned in London for his “Water Music”, even though its dedicated to a foreign monarch. Greenberg offers a snippet of the 1717 “Water Music” which makes one interested in hearing more.
Handel composes the opera Rinaldo that makes him the toast of London in 1719. His most famous work is “Messiah”, an oratorio (an orchestra and voices production) composed in 1741. He becomes an English citizen in 1727, goes blind in 1751, and dies in London, in 1759.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Moving on, Greenberg introduces Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As one may remember from the movie, Mozart is a phenom with an unusual predilection for risqué ideas. Greenberg notes this is the time of the rise of the Ottoman empire.
Turkish influence is widely adopted in the late 18th century. Mozart capitalizes on its popularity with the opera called “The Abduction from the Harem”. In spite of Mozart’s introduction of Turkish influence in music, Greenberg explains Mozart is fatally affected by the rise of the Ottoman empire because of its economic impact on Europe.
Mozart falls ill in Prague and dies in poverty in Vienna, at the age of 35. Greenberg suggests Mozart brings Turkish influence into opera’s mainstream with the Ottoman Empire’s expansion.
Greenberg reflects on the Napoleonic era and its affect on Haydn and Beethoven who were great composers of their time, and ours. Greenberg’s characterization of these composer’s view Napoleon with “ambivalence”.
Napoleon began his conquests with an image as liberator (from religious persecution, royalty, and social inequality), but when he crowned himself as Emperor, many felt betrayed. The betrayal was Napoleon’s pact with the Roman Catholic Church and his assumption of the throne as Emperor of France.
As Austrians, both Haydn and Beethoven reviled Napoleon’s royal ascension. Haydn composed “Mass in the Time of War” that memorialized Napoleon’s creation of a war machine that threatened Vienna.
Beethoven composed “Wellington’s Victory” in 1813 that became his most successful composition. Ironically, Greenberg suggests that “Wellington’s Victory” is one of Beethoven’s lesser musical achievements. He argues that Beethoven creates a bombastic rather than melodic tribute to the English general that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
This is only a small part of what Greenberg covers in this 24-lecture series. He analyzes Russian composers and their early disdain for European musical traditions. Greenberg observes Russia is shown to be a “…riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, as referred to by Winston Churchill.
Greenberg touches on the histories of the Straus family (a father and son who competed against each other), Brahms, Gottschalk (an American composer surprisingly unknown by many), Verdi, Wagner, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, Holst, Berg (who composed an opera reflecting on the madness of war), Shostakovich, Copland, Gorecki, and Crumb.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883, German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor.)
Of interest is Greenberg’s analysis of Richard Wagner because of Wagner’s repugnant philosophy, but incredibly inventive and beautiful operas.
“The Ring of the Nibelung” reminds one of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. Greenberg explains “The Ring…” is a critique of 19th century European society and its self-interested pursuit of capitalist wealth. Greenberg infers the subject is ironic because Wagner pursues wealth as diligently as any European of that era. The repugnant part is the horrendous and false accusations made against people of the Jewish faith by Wagner and his acolytes (one of which becomes Adolph Hitler).
Nickolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908, Russian composer.)
Of note is recognition of Rimsky-Korsakov as one of Opera’s greatest composers.
Greenberg notes that anti-European sentiment of earlier Russian composers is still present but Rimsky-Korsakov studies much of what is practiced by European composers. “The Golden Cockeral” is Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera. It is based on a Pushkin’ poem but staged as a parody of the failure of Russian Royal’ leadership.
Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918, assassinated by the Bolsheviks.)
To the Russian Tsar’s dismay, it is an opera that satirizes the autocracy of Russian imperialism and Russia’s inept war with Japan in 1904-05.
Greenberg shows Rimsky-Korsadov’s life as example of how current times mirror a composer’s work. Tsar Nicholas II is not pleased with “The Golden Cockeral”. Rimsky-Korsakov retires, but one wonders if his last opera is not a forewarning of 1917.
(Greenberg notes that Rimsky-Korsakov draws some of his operatic ideas from fairy tales).
One wonders what he could have composed if “Animal Farm” (published in 1945) had been written in his life time.
Greenberg finishes music’s mirror of history in the 1970s with a review of Gorecki and Crumb. This is an enlightening tour of classical music. It offers many reasons for modern audiences to attend symphony and opera performances.